City Farm was born out of a mixture of boredom, curiousity and idleness. One of the Kuala Lumpur-based company’s co-founders decided on a whim to buy a grow kit from Amazon; his three university mates promptly followed suit.
Jayden Koay, Looi Choon Beng, Low Cheng Yang and Johanson Chew had no background in agriculture, and almost no knowledge. But armed with their grow kits, they were soon addicted to hydroponics.
“There was this ‘wow’ factor to urban farming when we bought this grow set. We started growing each set in our own homes, and customising it by building our own circuits and discussing the best fertiliser for soil-less planting,” says 29-year-old Koay.
The four were studying at Malaysian Multimedia University in Cyberjaya, and were involved in startups that were struggling or had recently failed. Hydroponics was a hobby to pass the time – but it soon grew out of control.
“The addiction was so bad that I was not even sleeping – I spent all night transplanting the seedlings into the urban farm,” Koay adds.
It wasn’t long before one of them had an idea. Why not turn this addiction into a business?
So four months after they purchased their farm sets, the four set up City Farm, an urban farm that grows vegetables in a controlled environment. Two years on, it’s already a thriving enterprise.
The typical shoplot façade gives little indication of what lies within. The interior, covering about 500 square feet, is filled with rows and rows of shelves stacked with trays that house small containers of lettuce, strawberries, rosemary, basil and spinach.
Koay says urban farming was a practical response to land scarcity. “To deal with the lack of space, humans begin living in units stacked on top of each other. We apply that to planting as well,” he says. “That’s the beauty of urban farming, or what we like to call vertical urban farming.”
Farming for the future?
The City Farm setup is high-tech and enables cultivation to be closely controlled for maximum productivity. The shelves of plants are irrigated with specially formulated, nutrient-rich water that is pumped into the plant containers in specified quantities, so that all vegetables and herbs receive sufficient nutrients. The setup also monitors how much carbon dioxide is in the water.
“Everything is considered in this system,” Koay explains. “From the nutrient levels to the pH, carbon dioxide and the temperature.”
He says there are four categories of edible plants being grown at City Farm: leafy greens, such as spinach and lettuce; herbs; fruiting plants like cucumbers and tomatos; and vegetables typically grown beneath the soil, such potatoes and carrots.
City Farm’s capacity is limited; with its present space, it can produce around 2000 heads of lettuce every month. But it’s ambitions are big. It hopes to encourage a rapid expansion of farming in urban areas.
Like many countries, Malaysia is losing agricultural land to the expansion of urban areas. While the Global Food Security Index 2016 showed that Malaysia is still ahead of other ASEAN countries in terms of food security, placing 35th out of 113 countries, that’s no guarantee of future food security, Koay says. He notes that the United Nations has predicted that the world’s population will grow to 9.6 billion by 2050, with 70 percent living in the cities. Production will need to increase 70 percent to feed everyone.
But City Farm’s main business is in consulting rather than growing. Koay admits that when they started out, the four friends “didn’t really understand where the demand was for hydroponics”. They soon realised that there was a growing need for people who understood how to create hydroponic setups.
Their customers include major farms in Johor and Sarawak, and a research facility in Malacca. The largest of these farms occupies three storeys in a shophouse and has a growing area of about 5,000 square feet.
Property developers are also emerging as key customers because they are increasingly seeking to integrate green elements into their projects. So far City Farm has worked with major players such as SP Setia, Sunway and EcoWorld.
“The green element is attractive for retailers [and] developers – for instance, they always want to provide weekend activity for families,” Koay says. “Incorporating a vertical vegetable farm within a housing or property complex makes sense for them.”
Vertical urban farm pioneers in Malaysia
In Malaysia, the urban farming industry is still in its infancy, says Koay. To make production cost-effective, they need established supply chains for everything from PVC piping to distribution of vegetables.
City Farm hopes to see more players in the market – be they competitors or partners – in order to create the critical mass needed to make urban farming viable.
The Malaysian government doesn’t have a policy on urban farming yet, but it has encouraged those buying into affordable housing schemes to grow their own food in order to supplement their nutrition sources and potentially generate income.
Koay says City Farm – and urban farming more generally – might be able to help address some of the problems in Malaysia’s agriculture sector. One of these, he says, is a mismatch between supply and demand.
Most vegetables are grown in the Cameron Highlands but he notes that sometimes there is a glut in the market due to lack of data on the types of vegetables demanded by consumers in Kuala Lumpur.
This suggests a lack of coordination between distributors, retailers and the government.
In 2013, the price for a kilogram of tomatoes hit RM4 (SG$1.54) and farmers rushed to grow more. That caused a glut the following year, when prices crashed to 20 sen (SG$0.05) per kilogram and more than 100 tonnes of tomatoes had to be disposed of daily.
City Farm could help make production more efficient by collecting data and creating a system to help farmers manage their growing schedules better.
For now, though, they are focused on increasing their consultancy services, expanding into retail and offering short courses on hydroponics. They hope to soon begin picking up international customers.
It’s been a rapid rise for the four young men and they’ve learned a lot along the way.
“We started out the business thinking that we should be unconventional,” Koay says. “Every practice that the traditional farm does, we avoided. But we’ve dropped that thinking. We find that our technology and knowledge may be able to complement the work of big farms.”